Still-perfect Portland survives Cole, Bonny Eagle to win regional crown
PORTLAND—The showdown lived up to billing and in the end, the perfect team was slightly better than the superstar.
Saturday evening's Western Class A Final at the Cumberland County Civic Center featured the undefeated, top-ranked Bulldogs of Portland and their balanced attack going up against third-seeded Bonny Eagle, led by a player who might just be named Mr. Maine Basketball next month, senior Dustin Cole.
While Cole carried the first half, the undeniable Bulldogs stepped up in the second and as a result, are now just 32 minutes from glory.
Portland, behind sizzling shooting from senior Travis Godbout, led most of the first period and took an 18-13 lead to the second, but foul trouble gave the Scots an opening and behind 21 points from Cole, they managed to rally and take a 33-28 lead to halftime.
Then, Bulldogs' coach Joe Russo mixed up his defensive approach and not only did Portland hold Cole in check in the second half, the move sparked an offensive revival.
It took only 2 minutes, 39 seconds for Portland to erase an eight-point deficit and pull even, 36-36, on an old-fashioned three-point play from Godbout. Then, with 4:43 to go in the third, sophomore Amir Moss scored on a runner in the lane and the Bulldogs were ahead to stay.
Portland took a 47-41 lead to the fourth period, where Bonny Eagle, seeking desperately to avoid a fourth straight regional final loss, refused to go away.
Two free throws from senior Jon Woods with 4:56 remaining pulled the Scots within two, 53-51, but Bulldogs junior Steve Alex hit the biggest 3-pointer of his life and down the stretch, Alex and senior Justin Zukowski made enough to big plays to allow Portland to gradually pull away to win by the misleading final score of 70-60.
Godbout had 17 points, Alex added 16, Zukowski and Moss added 10 apiece and the Bulldogs stayed perfect at 21-0, ended the Scots' fine season at 19-2 and advanced to a delicious showdown of unbeatens in Saturday's Class A state final at the Civic Center against defending champion Hampden Academy (21-0).
"It feels great," said Zukowski. "I've waited for this for a long time. Before the game started, one of the things we said was that we wouldn't give up, no matter the score. We believed in ourselves and our teammates."
Good as advertised
Seeing Portland and Bonny Eagle match up Saturday night wasn't a surprise to most local basketball fans, as the Bulldogs and Scots were clearly the best teams in the Southwestern Maine Activities Association this season and only Falmouth appeared capable of spoiling the party in the tournament.
That didn't happen, as Bonny Eagle edged the second-ranked Yachtsmen in an instant classic Wednesday evening in the semifinals, 62-61. The Scots had previously dispatched No. 6 Sanford, 66-49, in the quarterfinals.
Portland's road had been even smoother. After their first undefeated regular season in 15 years, the Bulldogs blew past No. 8 Noble in the second half en route to an 81-52 triumph, then downed No. 4 Deering, 64-49, Wednesday in the semis.
The teams played just once in the regular season and Portland prevailed, 69-60, back on Jan. 14, in a game played at St. Joseph's College.
Portland had beaten Bonny Eagle in all four prior playoff encounters (see sidebar), with a 56-38 Bulldogs' victory in the preliminary round five years ago being the most recent.
The Scots were hoping to avoid being a four-time loser in this round, but the Bulldogs wouldn't be stopped.
In front of a large crowd at the Civic Center, Godbout set the tone 25 seconds in, taking a pass from Alex, then making a 3-pointer.
Cole pulled the Scots even with a 3 and junior Ben Malloy drove for a layup to make it 5-3 Bonny Eagle, but with 5:33 left in the first, Alex, inbounding the ball, fed Godbout in the left corner and Godbout hit another 3 for a 6-5 lead.
Zukowski then got his first points on a layup after a steal. After Woods made a leaner over Portland senior Matt Talbot, Godbout hit a third 3 for an 11-7 advantage.
Godbout, who struggled shooting the ball in the first two tournament games, had returned to form.
"Getting off to a good start was huge," said Godbout. "They were packing the middle, expecting us to go inside, challenging us to beat them from the outside and we did. Once I hit the first one, then the second one, I knew I had it going. It felt great. Those shots were huge."
Cole then gave the Scots a 12-11 lead with a layup after a steal and an old-fashioned three-point play (bank shot, foul, free throw), but senior Jayvon Pitts-Young buried a 3 to put the Bulldogs back on top.
Alex, after blocking a shot at one end, scored his first points on a putback at the other, then made a layup (taking a feed from Pitts-Young after a steal) for a six-point lead, but in the final minute, Scots junior Nick Dubay made a foul shot to cut Portland's lead to 18-13 after eight minutes of play.
Cole had eight points in the first quarter and was even better in the second.
After Dubay started the frame with a pullup jumper, Moss made a corner 3, but Cole hit two foul shots. After Talbot sank one free throw, Malloy buried a 3 and the Bulldogs' lead was just two, 22-20.
After Portland senior Dan Kane drove for a layup, Dubay did the same. Alex hit a jumper to make it 26-22, but Cole made two foul shots, Cole banked home a tough leaner, Cole hit a jumper over Zukowski and with 13.1 seconds left in the half, Cole culminated his personal 7-0 run with a foul shot.
Talbot snapped the surge with a jumper, but with 3.6 seconds to go, Cole made two more free throws and Bonny Eagle took a 33-28 lead into halftime.
In the first 16 minutes, Cole led all players with 21 points, but just as impressive, the Scots committed only three turnovers.
Russo knew that he had to do something to change the tempo and limit Cole's damage, so he scrapped the original game plan.
"We had a different game plan than last time we played them and obviously it didn't work," Russo said. "We went to Plan B, which was to get the ball out of Dustin's hands. We had to put a couple big guys up front and made him pass the ball. Talbot, Steve Alex, Jay a little bit and Dan Kane. Whoever were my two biggest guys. Plan A was to limit Malloy and let Cole do his thing, but we were down five points because he's so good."
While the Scots had to feel good with the lead, they vividly remembered being up seven over South Portland in last year's regional final loss and that there was still a long way to go.
Too long, as it would prove.
Pitts-Young had a chance to cut into the deficit when he was fouled after an offensive rebound 19 seconds in, but he missed both shots.
With 7:11 left in the quarter, Cole gave Bonny Eagle its biggest lead, 36-28, with a 3.
Then, Portland roared back.
Godbout started the comeback by taking a pass from Zukowski and draining a 3 while being fouled. He had a chance for a rarely seen four-point play, but missed the free throw.
After Pitts-Young made a layup, Godbout made another long jumper, just inside the three-point line, while being fouled.
Bonny Eagle called timeout as Godbout implored the Portland crowd to make some noise.
Out of the timeout, Godbout made the and-one free throw and the Bulldogs were even, 36-36.
Seconds after Pitts-Young was sidelined with his fourth foul, Moss hit a runner and Portland went on top for good, 38-36.
Talbot added to the lead when he took a lob pass from Zukowski and made a layup.
With 2:50 left in the quarter, Dubay scored on a putback (somehow getting it over Talbot) to snap the Bulldogs' 12-0 run and a 4 minute, 21 second drought, but Talbot made a free throw and Alex, who was the beneficiary of a lucky bounce, made a layup for a 43-38 advantage.
Dubay took a pass from Cole and made a 3, but Talbot, on his second try, tipped the ball home and with 3.4 seconds left, Moss scored a highlight reel spinning layup to make it 47-41 Portland with eight minutes to play.
With its season slipping away, Bonny Eagle played tough in the fourth quarter, but the Bulldogs weren't about to fold.
Two Woods free throws pulled the Scots within four, but Alex made a free throw. After Cole drove for a layup, Talbot hit a free throw and with 6:01 to go, Alex made two and Portland was up, 51-45.
Nine seconds later, Dubay buried a long 3 and the Scots' deficit was cut in half, but Zukowski banked home a shot that rattled around and in.
With 4:58 left, Dubay went to the line and made the first free throw. He missed the second, but Woods got the rebound and was fouled (by Pitts-Young, who was done for the night). Woods then sank the first attempt and after getting a reprieve by a lane violation after missing the second, hit his second chance and Bonny Eagle was only down two, 53-51.
The Scots would draw no closer.
At the other end, Alex came off a screen, took a pass from Zukowski and drained a 3 and the lead was back to five.
"I was just avoiding getting charges after getting three fouls in the first half," said Alex. "I was looking to pass it more. Trying to be more unselfish than I was. I'm confident. Coach told me that I'm open to take it. If not, to run the play."
Moss added a free throw, but Cole drove for a layup.
Portland turned the ball over, giving the Scots a chance to draw closer, but Cole missed a leaner and Zukowski outwrestled Malloy for the rebound and was fouled. Zukowski made one free throw for a 58-53 lead.
After Cole missed a jumper, Alex made a jump shot with 2:07 remaining and the Bulldogs had a three possession lead.
With 1:47 left, right after Alex fouled out, Woods set up senior Nate Alexander for a layup, but Zukowski drove for a layup and a 62-55 lead.
Dubay missed a 3-pointer at the other end, but got his own rebound and was fouled. With 1:21 to go, Dubay hit both attempts to cut the deficit to five.
Zukowski made a free throw, but with 1:03 remaining, after Godbout soared out to the perimeter to block a Malloy 3, Dubay drove for an up-and-under layup, making it a four-point game, 63-59.
Zukowski was fouled with 42.2 seconds to go and wasn't about to falter in the big spot, making both attempts.
Eight seconds later, Woods made one of two free throws, but Kane answered with one and after Godbout again blocked Malloy's 3-point attempt, Godbout was fouled and essentially iced the game with two foul shots, making it 68-60 with 23.9 seconds left.
"They were big blocks because we got the stop," Godbout said. "I just did what I had to do to win."
Cole missed a 3 and Moss got the rebound. With 15 seconds showing, Moss canned both free throws and after a last second Bonny Eagle 3 was off the mark, the horn sounded and Portland prevailed, 70-60.
"It's a great feeling," Alex said. "I love playing here. It's a once in a lifetime chance. I'm losing my voice from yelling so much. We did this for all the fans."
"It wouldn't have mattered if I played tonight or not, it's great to see my team get the win," Talbot said. "I'm happy that we won. It's not a good feeling to be down at halftime, especially in a big game, but we knew we could put up points as quickly as anyone else."
"This feels awesome," Godbout said. "All the seniors have been together since the sixth grade. Me and Matty have been together since the third grade. That's 10 years. It's huge. A lot of guys came up big. That's what we need. If some guys don't come out strong, others pick them up. That's why we're so good."
The Bulldogs placed four players in double digits.
Godbout led the way with 17 points (which included four 3s) and two critical blocked shots.
"Godbout was unstoppable," Talbot said. "He gets down on himself, but to see him shine senior year is amazing."
"Travis had a huge start for us," Russo said. "We talked about them packing it in and they'd have no choice but to leave the weak side open. He had to knock them down and he did. His defense has not been his forte, but at the end of the game, I said, 'Can you give me some defense?' and he stepped it up. I'm really happy for him. He came out of the JV program last year and helped us all year."
Alex continued to make himself a household name with 16 points, six boards, four steals and a block.
"I love to have Steve on the team," said Zukowski. "He always comes up big. He really helped us today."
"Steve Alex kind of goes up and down, but he can be very, very good," Russo said. "We need him at certain times. Tonight, he played each role. He's maturing as a player and as a young man. I'm really proud of him."
Zukowski, who was named the George Vinall Award winner as the regional tournament's outstanding player/sportsman, had 10 points, four assists, two rebounds and two steals.
"It's a really special award," Zukowski said. "I'm thankful to get it, but a lot of my teammates could have gotten it."
"He deserves more than MVP," Talbot said. "MVP doesn't put into words what he does for us."
"Justin came through," Russo added. "He has a refuse to lose attitude. He doesn't come off the floor. He couldn't come off the floor tonight with other guys in foul trouble. He took care of the ball and took care of business. He deserved (the Vinall Award)."
Moss also had 10 points off the bench.
Talbot finished with nine points, a game-high 11 boards and a block.
Pitts-Young had five points before fouling out and Kane added three.
Portland had a 26-22 rebounding advantage, only committed 11 turnovers and wound up 17 of 32 from the line.
While Russo wasn't shy about crediting the effort of his players, one of the players made a point of praising him.
"In the first half, we were playing man, but we switched up our defense and it worked," Godbout said. "Coach Russo's a great coach. All the credit to him."
For Bonny Eagle, Cole, bound for Franklin Pierce University, had 28 points and two steals in his swan song.
"I started off on him and I picked up two quick fouls, but even when I was in, he was great," Zukowski said. "He beat us in transition, beat us down the court, got layups. Our halfcourt trap really got the ball out of his hands in the second half."
"(Dustin has) been so good for SMAA basketball," Russo said. "Everytime we think he's good, he just gets better."
Dubay had 18 points (and five boards), Woods seven (and a team-high seven rebounds), Malloy five and Alexander two.
The Scots had 12 turnovers, but nine came after halftime. They were a solid 18 of 20 from the line, but still fell short.
Last step's the hardest
Portland will have its hands full Saturday when Hampden Academy comes to the Civic Center (tip time is 7:05 p.m.) riding a 43-game win streak. The defending Class A champions beat South Portland in last year's state game (45-41) and haven't lost since their last trip to Portland, a 59-50 setback against Deering in the 2012 Class A Final.
The Broncos, ranked first in Eastern A, ousted No. 8 Lewiston (85-47) in the quarterfinals, fifth-seeded Edward Little (67-49) in the semis and No. 6 Oxford Hills (82-54) in Friday's regional final. The closest anyone's come to Hampden Academy all season was Oxford Hills in an eight-point Broncos' home win Feb. 1.
Hampden Academy and Portland have no history.
The Bulldogs know they'll have their work cut out, even though they're playing in a friendly setting.
"We'll work hard this week," Godbout said. "We're not done yet. We have to play great D. Our defense is the key. We love this court."
"We've won 21 games and we want to make it 22 and get that state title," said Alex. "We'll follow our game plan and I like our chances."
"This feels amazing, but we know it's not the end," Talbot said. "Hampden's a great team. They're 21-0, we're 21-0. I think we'll be able to play with them."
"We have to stay focused on the Gold Ball this week," Zukowski added. "I've played with a couple of their guys. I know how good they are. We've been shooting here and they haven't. It's a homecourt advantage."
Portland will be playing in its first state final in seven seasons and is seeking its first championship since 2004. Russo, better than anyone, knows these opportunities don't come along every year.
"It doesn't seem like seven years, because we're always around, but the years always go by fast," he said. "Unfortunately in 2007, Bangor beat us. We'll enjoy it. The kids will come out and play hard. Hampden's a talented team. Going 21-0 is great, but it would be nice to go 22-0. They're undefeated too. If you're not excited about this game, you're not a basketball fan. It will be awesome."